Man in the Kitchen: A Father Faces the Empty Nest

Man in the Kitchen: A Father Faces the Empty Nest

empty nest
© Julija Supic/123RF

My son left me. Now what?

Okay, so what Ben actually did was get a wonderful job as a counselor at his beloved sleepaway camp, and that happens to butt up against his leaving for freshman year of college. I am bereft and I haven’t even changed the sheets on his empty bed!

You meet “the one.” You wed. You have kids. They’re cute. Then they’re impossible. You love them. Then they become teenagers and you want to kill them. They eat you out of house and home. They leave their socks everywhere. And then they leave.

empty nest
Ken Carlton with sons Ben and Mathew. Photo courtesy of author

As a man, you think you are ill-prepared on the day you bring home an infant. I mean no instruction manual, nothing! This is your kid! So you work through it. However, nothing prepares you for that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hug your first-born goodbye with all your might and you can already feel the distance as he gently tugs to get away.

The drive home is hell. No matter that his kid brother Mathew will be waiting when you walk in the door. The delicate balance has been broken. It used to be them against the world, and the world was you! Your angry cries of “pick up your dirty dishes,” when delivered to two, were as meaningful as asking them to discover the Higgs Boson. Now you’d feel too guilty to tell Matty to stamp out a brush fire in the bedroom. He’s missing his best friend just as much as you are.

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Ben and Mathew Carlton. Photo courtesy of author

The pop culture pundits suggest that our generation has gone too far in turning our children into our buddies. Maybe so, but who else are we supposed to watch ESPN with at midnight? The pundits don’t know the joy of sharing the front seat on a midnight drive with a gangly teenager and baseball on the radio. So many of those moments were silently spoken. It leaves a heart-wrenching vacuum in your soul.

When times grow tough, the moms I know best fall back on maternal instinct to guide them through the rough patches. But from my experience, male parenting is about as natural as hip replacement surgery. I defiantly want things to feel the way they did for the past 17 years, but one empty bunk bed, a collection of mismatched socks and a first college tuition bill tell me they have changed. What’s a guy to do?

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Ben Carlton. Photo courtesy of author

Cook! Bien sûr. Because you see, my nest may now be half-empty, but big brother’s kid sibling is 16 years old, six-foot one, and can eat his way through a Costco. He’s never shared his brother’s love of sous chef-ing, but hey, I’m the dad. I make the rules. We can do this, together.

Matthew and I spent the 4th of July alone. I had no heart to invite friends over, but I had enough appetite to light the grill. “Wanna hang out or anything?” I asked. He took out his earbuds, plugged his phone into the charger and said, “Sure.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah, Dad. Why not?”

So here’s the thing about parenting. Just when you think you get it, you’re always reminded that you don’t. The only thing you ever really learn is compromise. Adjust. And reboot. Tomorrow is another day. Table for three becomes table for two, but when you have kids, one thing never changes. Your plate, like your heart, remains always full.

Click here for Ken’s Summertime Grilled Chicken (and dessert) Recipe!

empty nest
Ken Carlton at the BBQ. Photo courtesy of author
Ken Carlton is founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish, a food review and storytelling website. He is the author or ghostwriter of eight books, including the award-winning memoir, THE HUNGER, the story behind Greenwich Village’s celebrity hotspot, The Waverly Inn. Ken wrote the "His Point of View" column for Cosmopolitan and appeared as a dating expert on OPRAH. He still muses about food, relationships and parenting at his website, Food for Marriage. A New Yorker and Parisian at heart, he has scripted conferences in Paris for CNN and Fortune magazine. Ken and his wife, a professor, split their time between Brooklyn, NY and Chicago. You can follow him on Instagram @foodformarriage



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